In this year of deep political splits and bad manners, who would have predicted that our great national-education debate has reached such a friendly, we-can-all-get-along moment?
Republicans and Democrats in Congress, after agreeing on almost nothing for years, have managed to pass a bipartisan education bill. It’s not brilliant legislation, but it’s something.
More startling, two of the education war’s most prolific warriors — historian and author Diane Ravitch and investor and charter school advocate Whitney Tilson — are talking nice to each other and making a list of the things they agree on.
In the past, the writings of Ravitch, a critic of testing, charter schools and billionaire education reformers, and Tilson, a critic of teachers unions, school-district bureaucracies and low standards, sometimes have been as acidic as this year’s presidential debates. It got so bad that I wrote a column in 2010 about them. The headline writer accurately labeled it “a plea for peace among petulant pundits.”
“They are among my favorite commentators,” I wrote. “I wish they were more willing to give credit to ideological adversaries for the good sense and good words on all sides of the debate.”
Ravitch excoriated President Obama for backing charters, testing programs and teacher-evaluation systems loved by business interests. Tilson labeled Ravitch a turncoat for opposing reforms she once favored as an official of the George W. Bush Education Department.
But the Republicans have gotten so crazy lately, at least from Tilson’s and Ravitch’s perspective, that the two adversaries have found common ground. Tilson asked Ravitch whether she shared his distaste for the new North Carolina law requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms according to their gender at birth, not the gender with which they identify. She said she did. They expressed themselves equally aghast at the idea of a Donald Trump presidency.
Tilson emailed Ravitch a list of 24 statements about education that he thought she may agree with. Ravitch endorsed many of them. Those positions, from these two key activists, suggest the direction that education policy will take in the future.
Tilson and Ravitch agreed, for instance, that poverty has an enormous effect on a child’s ability to learn; that fixing homelessness, violence, broken families and other social ills is critical; that some testing is necessary but too much is harmful; that expanding high-quality pre-K is important; that teachers should be evaluated regularly, comprehensively and fairly with the primary goal of helping them improve their craft; that if a teacher doesn’t improve, there needs to be a timely and fair system to get him or her out of the profession; and that in fighting for the interests of teachers, unions are doing exactly what they’re supposed to.
This is not a love fest. Ravitch, at 77, and Tilson, at 49, have very different professional histories and peer groups. She isn’t impressed with his defense of his billionaire friends’ sincerity in wanting to help poor urban kids achieve. They need to fix poverty, not reorganize schools, she says. He can’t accept her view of teachers unions as the underdog victims of rich reformers when, he says, those unions “are among the most powerful interest groups in the country.”
But I like their email exchanges that reveal them deep in conversation on topics such as how best to evaluate teachers and make them better. Tilson agreed with Ravitch that using tests to evaluate instructors has flaws and suggested letting good principals do it. Ravitch said she saw that working at a Brooklyn school. Yet the current focus on evaluation, she added, reflects a fantasy that “a supply of great teachers is waiting to get into the classrooms,” when many need more training and students need better home lives to succeed.
Take a look at their discussion online. I hope it influences the rest of us when we debate schools. It is without doubt an improvement on the tone and character of our discussions over who should be the next president.